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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    The empowered scarlet letter

    “”I was raped.””

    It’s a powerful, scary, awful sentence – and it’s seldom heard coming out of anyone’s mouth in everyday conversation.

    The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that one in four women and one in six men will be the victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault in their lifetimes. If it is a systemic problem, many wonder, why don’t we hear about assault more often?

    Jennifer Baumgardner believes that she has the solution to this line of thought. A prominent third wave feminist and author, she became the center of a hurricane of controversy in 2003 when she launched a line of T-shirts that read “”I had an abortion.”” The shirts are a 21st century update of “”speakouts,”” which began in 1969 as forums for women to talk about their experiences with abortion. She has since created another shirt with a graphic of an opened safe, in which there is a small folded card that reads in delicate script “”I was raped.”” Baumgardner’s aim is to draw attention to the pervasiveness of rape in American culture, as well as lessen the shame and stigma that are often the burden of victims.

    Public reception has been mixed, to say the least. Baumgardner told The New York Times that many of her friends “”are really grossed out by the T-shirt.”” When I first saw one of the shirts, so was I. The graphic reminded me of the way that abstinence zealots talk about female virginity; a safe seemed right at home among the other ridiculous metaphors of flowers and lollipops. More importantly, I wondered if the shirt actually violated one of the tenets of Baumgardner’s philosophy: “”As Maya Angelou says, ‘I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.'””

    Doesn’t wearing this shirt reduce women to living symbols of their assault, and nothing else? My reaction seemed in line with most of the media response to the shirt – but that may serve as all the more reason for women to wear it en masse.

    Carly Thomsen, director of the UA Women’s Resource Center, agrees. “”Women are always told that whatever the issue is, we should be quiet about it,”” she said. “”All these different issues become very individualized … all of a sudden rape isn’t a systemic problem.”” Because discussing rape is so taboo, the trauma can be greater for victims of assault, who often feel extremely isolated and ashamed. The same principle was at work when, searching for confirmation of the one in four statistic online, I found a plethora of Web sites devoted to debunking it, blaming its prevalence on “”females untrained in legal nuances.””

    Though Baumgardner doesn’t offer a specific day or context in which to wear the T-shirt, it would probably be safest and most effective at rallies like Take Back The Night, where Thomsen says she has seen quite a few “”I had an abortion”” shirts in the past. While wearing the shirt at a rally could be a powerful statement, it might not be altogether empowering in everyday life. After all, it could invite questions and comments more offensive than solicitous, and even potentially open women up to more abuse. But focusing on that concern alone ignores the reason behind it, which is indeed rooted in our shame-based approach to sexuality and sexual assault.

    Our school, despite boasting a greater female than male student population and hosting Baumgardner and fellow feminist Amy Richards themselves at last year’s Take Back The Night rally, is still in the top 20 in the Princeton Review’s list of party schools, and carries with it all the attendant dangerous attitudes toward sex that large schools whose social scenes revolve around alcohol must contend with. “”Whether or not (the UA) has created an environment where sexual assault is more likely to happen, I’m not sure,”” Thomsen said. “”(The Women’s Resource Center) is clearly underfunded, we have few resources, we’re understaffed, and what does that say?”” These shirts may provide individual solace, but in order to change the approach to sexuality on our campus and in our culture, we have to think bigger.

    “”I think any strategy that is being used to combat (these issues) is a worthwhile one,”” Thomsen said. “”(But) I tend to think as soon as women are expected to speak out as a form of empowerment, we’re putting all of the pressure on the victims to change the situation … it can’t be the only strategy.”” Whether or not to announce one’s victimhood with a T-shirt is a matter of individual choice, but our collective responsibility to prevent sexual assault cannot remain so.

    Rather than forking over $25 for one of Baumgardner’s shirts, you can donate the same amount directly to Scarleteen, the organization selling the shirts, which is devoted to providing adolescents with comprehensive sex education and building healthy attitudes toward sexuality, or to our own Women’s Resource Center.

    Speaking frankly about sexual assault can forever remain the domain of victims, and very little will change, but the opportunity these shirts provide us to start a discussion of sexuality that transcends victimhood and gender is too important to pass up.

    Sarah Devlin is a sophomore majoring in English and political science. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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